“When in Rome, Bring Your Farsi-Hungarian-Polish-Arabic Dictionary,” Ensign, Jan. 1989, 79
The opening prayer might be in Polish, Farsi, Hungarian, or English. The sacrament services will be conducted in English, but afterward there may be Primary in Polish or Farsi, perhaps a Sunday School class in Hungarian, Tagalog, or Arabic, and a Gospel Doctrine class whose teacher speaks English with a Liberian lilt.
A converted three-story apartment house in the northeastern section of Rome serves as the meetinghouse for the International Branch of the Italy Rome Mission. The multilingual branch shares the meetinghouse with Rome’s Nomentano Branch. In the morning, meetings proceed in Italian; but in the afternoon, worship goes on in as many as seventeen different languages.
Almost without exception, members of the International Branch are refugees or students from other countries. Eighty percent have been members of the Church for less than a year. Many are on United Nations’ waiting lists to emigrate to the United States, Canada, or Australia, so the turnover among members is high. For example, Peyman Jazayeri, an Iranian refugee, was taught, baptized, ordained to the priesthood, and then emigrated to the United States with his family—all in less than two and a half months.
Lee Wohlgemuth, a United States government employee working in Rome, presides over the branch. His wife, Marti, serves as Primary president and lends her support in other capacities as well. With their seven children, they help bring stability to a branch whose population hovers at just over one hundred, despite more than sixty-five baptisms in the first ten months of 1988. Most of those new converts have now moved away.
Twenty-four-year-old Faramarz Shirevand, second counselor in the branch presidency, has been around longer than most. A refugee from Iran, he spoke neither Italian nor English when he arrived in Rome. Now he can conduct business in either language. He was baptized in November 1987. He hopes to emigrate to Sweden, where his brother lives. But he also hopes to serve a mission.
Kazimierz Gajda says, “I’m convinced that God guided my life so I could come here to Italy and learn about the Church.” He considers it a small miracle that he was able to obtain a passport for his whole family, arrange his affairs, and leave his native Poland—all within three months. That is unheard of, he says. “When I talk about that with others, even I can’t believe it happened.”
The family found the gospel when Kazimierz spotted a sign in Rome advertising English classes. It was a language he thought his family would need if they realized their dream to emigrate to Canada. The classes were taught by LDS missionaries. Kazimierz obtained a testimony and joined the Church first; his wife, Mariola, was drawn in as she saw the changes in him.
There are other stories of great faith in the branch as well. At the end of the first fast and testimony meeting after his baptism, Jordanian convert Anis Karim Jaser bore a powerful testimony of the divinity of Christ and the truthfulness of the Church. For the Abdolreza Afshar family, refugees from Iran, baptism had to be delayed because Abdolreza’s wife, Mehri, was ill. But when the time finally came, he was baptized, confirmed, and ordained a priest. Then he reentered the font to baptize his wife and son.
Many of the members have known hardship and tragedy in making their way to Rome; many have lost loved ones to death or do not know where other family members now are. And life is hard while they wait to emigrate.
Travel to and from Church services is time-consuming and expensive on their limited budgets. A number of the converts from eastern Europe, including the first counselor in the branch presidency, live in Ladispoli, about sixty kilometers north of Rome. They are now organized into a dependent branch. Soon, they hope, they will be an independent branch.
Meanwhile, visitors to the International Branch’s Sunday services might wonder at the blending of accents and cultures, but there is no mistaking the Spirit that is there. Out of what might have been a modern-day Babel, the Lord has brought a unity of faith.
Correspondent: Leonard J. Fabiano, Jr., formerly a missionary in the Italy Rome Mission.